Disney is a cultural juggernaut that few will challenge. In fact, Disney seems to have the least number of detractors in comparison to equally well-known and influential brands. In his essay “Is Disney Good for Your Kids? How Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age,”Henry A. Giroux observes that Disney’s projected image of wholesomeness and innocence “manages to deflect, if not completely trounce, criticism at every turn” (76). Maybe there are other dissenters out there who, like me, have been beaten down by the roomful of gasps and protests that a single anti-Disney remark will inevitably raise—“That’s my childhood you’re tearing apart!” This romanticized notion of childhood dreams both protects and is theoretically protected by Disney, and makes Disney a far less polarizing subject than other large monopolizing corporations.
Disney’s method of marketing dreams is an affront to the freedom of dreaming. Disney mania convinces kids that they all have the same dreams, so that these can be mass-produced, wrapped in shiny, garishly colored packaging, and delivered to the happy, brainwashed consumers. This method is not too different from any manufacturer whose job it is to convince customers that they want a certain product, except the reason I employ the hyperbolized analogy of brainwashing is that Disney does not simply push individual products, but markets its brand as being all-things good and wholesome. It has done so by making already appealing and classic characters almost synonymous with the brand. For example, the “Disney princesses” first made their debut in folk tales by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, and the title character in Aladdin was plucked from the Arabian Nights and taught to sing on the big screen.
Babies aren’t born clamoring for Disney-themed nurseries and toys; over time they are socially conditioned to desire the brand. Disney may market most of its products to children ages four to sixteen, but for toddlers to become predisposed to want these products, Disney recruits parents to prime the pump. This is accomplished through an aggressive projection of a family image. The method of “priming the pump” carries over generationally as adults who were raised in Disney homes will likely expose their own children to Disney at a young age. Disney latches onto the nostalgia that devotees associate with the brand and turns it over as another marketing technique. One commercial from 2011 depicts home video clips of parents surprising their kids with a trip to Disney World. The warm voiceover syrups, “Disney memories keep our children young in our hearts, and color our tomorrows with the best of our yesterdays” (Theskret1). By emphasizing the sentimentality and longing we feel for our own childhoods and subtly suggesting a direct correlation between Disney and good memories, Disney is able to present itself as the gift that keeps on giving. Disney’s presence in our society is not a passing commodity, but an institution with deep roots and high walls fashioned of dreams and wholesome family values.
Childhood is romanticized. The Disney commercial is able to capitalize on what we generally view nostalgically as the most carefree, explorative era of our own lives. However, it is also one of the most impressionable periods; children are not only dreamers, but also learners whose brains are constantly absorbing novelties and forming the basis of their identities. Parents who “buy into” Disney’s manufactured version of family give the corporation considerable power to construct what it means to be a child. But this is not Disney’s primary goal or role in society. For example, in 2000 Disney purchased the Baby Einstein franchise, which produces educational videos for infants. According to Giroux and Pollock, Disney markets Baby Einstein products to “suggest[ ]that parents can purchase…videos that will not only enable their children to develop good taste in music, but also make them capable of great intellectual achievements” (81). But when a study by the University of Washington concluded that infants who spent an hour a day watching videos showed slower language development, Disney immediately demanded that the University retract its statements. Even though the study wasn’t specifically focused on the Baby Einstein videos, Disney’s desire to capitalize on the infant market trumped any concern for the intellectual advancement of consumers of a product that promised to facilitate just that.
Not very wholesome, if you ask me. But in the world of capitalism, CEOs make ruthless, ethically questionable decisions to get ahead—it’s not exactly acceptable, but to a measure it’s expected. The Walt Disney Company is currently worth 103.96 billion dollars and was ranked 17th on Forbes’s 2013 list of most valuable brands. Disney clearly lays out in its mission statement that its objective is to “be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information… to maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value” (Investor Relations). There is no pledge to craft a flawless model of childhood. So why should we let our children’s formative years be defined by a company who at any point would change that definition to maximize earnings?
A demonstration of this willingness to change can be found in the evolution of Mickey Mouse. The cheerfully whistling character has appeared in cartoons, comic strips, and movies since his first appearance in the early 1920s. Mickey’s life-size countenance eats breakfast with guests at Disney World, and his squeaky persona teaches young viewers to solve problems by counting and identifying shapes on the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a show for preschoolers on the Disney Channel. However, in an effort to tap into the recently exploded video game industry, Disney released the game Epic Mickey, which not only casts the mouse into a dark Wasteland, but also “revamps the character…in an effort to make him more appealing to today’s youth” (Giroux 84). The game’s symbol, a dripping, sinister version of the iconic mouse ears, reflects Mickey’s new “cantankerous and cunning” persona and his “selfish, destructive behavior” in the game (Barnes). It is the transformation of an innocent symbol to fit the mold of video game violence, and another case in which Disney’s desire to conquer new markets outweighs a nonexistent commitment to a certain moral code.
I was recently discussing the subject of this essay with a close friend and Disney fan. She was reminiscing about how her childhood was marked by frequent trips to Disney World, and she boasted about having an autograph book filled with signatures of Disney characters collected at the park. As a child, I was never drawn to mascots of characters; I didn’t understand the concept because I knew that it was only a person inside of a costume, and not really Mickey Mouse. The fact that my peers happily took pictures with and collected the autographs of these characters confused me because I couldn’t tell if they believed in the authenticity of the signatures. But today I realize that these sort of interactions mimic the way that I believe Disney interacts with the public as a whole.
In my metaphor, Mickey Mouse’s smiling face and welcoming, playful mimes represent the public’s image of Disney as a fun, wholesome brand. Like the children eagerly running to hug their favorite character, most individuals readily accept this image as a full or accurate definition of Disney. They don’t inquire as to what is actually behind the façade. If they do, they reject or just don’t care that the core is something much baser, because it is only the happy disguise that they interact with. It’s fairly safe to say that anyone inside a Mickey Mouse costume is in it for the paycheck. His or her heart’s desire is not to make sure every child goes home that night with their dreams realized. This becomes a secondary goal in order to achieve the primary one—money. It is this disconnect between the human and the mouse, the corporate side of Disney and the dreaming front, that I am unable to reconcile.
These examples are not meant to condemn Disney as the evilest of corporations for betraying the standards to which we’ve held it. Rather, they tear down the pedestal upon which we have raised Disney above other corporations by believing that it operates by certain moral standards. Instead of treating Disney Corporation as a caring mentor for our children, we must remember that Disney only dons this image to further its primary goal of gaining capital in a capitalist market. It is not sinful of us to participate in the market by purchasing Disney products for their individual value, but it would be dangerous to completely swallow Disney dogma and allow it to become anything more than another merchandiser with a product to sell.
Barnes, Brooks. “After Mickey’s Makeover, Less Mr. Nice Guy.” 4 November 2009. New York Times Online. Web. 13 November 2013.
Giroux, Henry A. and Grace Pollock. “Is Disney Good for Your Kids? How Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age.” Steinberg, Shirley. Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Boulder: Westview Press, 2011. 73-92. Print.
“Investor Relations.” The Walt Disney Company, 2013. Web. 13 November 2013.
Theskret1. “2011 Disney Memories Commercial”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
“The World’s Most Valuable Brands.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2013. Web. 11 December 2013.